Interlude: Pas de Deux (original story by Chris and Colleen)

During our first in-game time jump–aka, “Spring Break Vampire”–all of our characters take a week of time deal with various accumulated business. The character with the most business-business, of course, is Rabenholz. The following story provides a brief glimpse of his empire building efforts during this time, as well as his new assistant Rhona’s realization of what exactly she’s gotten into. 

***

The problem with having twelve cellphones, Rhona thought as she slung her laptop bag onto the table, wasn’t the weight, but rather that one of them was always ringing.

She dug through till she found the offending buzz, composed herself, and answered. “Rhona Tyler…yes…no, I’m afraid his lordship is out at the moment and does not take calls on his private line, but we do have you scheduled to meet later this evening…yes…yes, thank you, Mr. Coppersmith, I will be in touch.”

She hung up and dropped the phone back into the bag. So far, every banker and financial advisor had been quite irritated to be called in for private meetings with an unknown German lord at all hours of the night, but somehow, by the time they left they were more amiable. Downright dreamy, even, smiling and relaxed as Rhona led them to the door. Sometimes she caught Rabenholz watching her carefully on her return. She would meet his gaze evenly, but she never said anything. There was too much work to dwell on it for long.

There was a knock at the door. Her dinner, finally. Or maybe it was lunch. The last few nights had robbed her of any hint of a normal schedule. She grabbed some money for a tip and opened the door.

A portly man stood there, dressed in the hotel’s formal uniform, but holding a box, not a tray. She stared at the box a moment in confusion, then looked up. Her eyes narrowed. “Oh. Mr. Masterson.”

Her old boss seemed equally surprised and he was irritated to see her. He hadn’t taken well to his night manager quitting in the middle of a shift. “Rhona. I didn’t expect to find you here. It’s late.”

She leaned against the frame, folding her arms. “I’m working. Like you always said, I do so well on the night shift. Isn’t that why you put me on it, continuously, for three years?”

Glaring, he peered around her. “Is Mr. Rabenholz in?”

His lordship is out at the moment, but I am authorized to manage all of his business. I can sign for whatever packages arrive.”

Masterson stooped to drop the box heavily to the carpet inside the entryway, grunting as he did so. “If he gets many more of these packages, the post office is going to think we’re setting up our own distribution facility. What on Earth is in this one, rocks?”

She pulled a small, thin notebook from an interior pocket in her suit and ran her finger slowly down the page. “…No, the diamonds and granite aren’t due till later this week.”

Masterson glared at her. She stared calmly back. “I assume,” she said finally, tucking her notebook carefully away, “that the shift-manager himself is playing errand-boy and making deliveries in an effort to make a good impression on the hotel’s most esteemed guest? I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that his lordship has maintained a reputation of generous tipping from the moment he stepped into this hotel?”

Masterson’s stare darkened. Before he could answer, she shunted the package to the side and closed the door in his face.

He had been right about one thing, the box was heavy. Rhona grunted, lifting the box onto a small table in the sitting room of the suite, her stomach grumbling. Grabbing a boxcutter from the table, she sliced the cardboard open.

Books. Textbooks, to be exact, on everything. Math, history, astronomy, physics, theology, all the high-level, new editions. She pulled out her notebook and crossed each off her list. Part of Rabenholz’s request had also been to secure tutors in each of these subjects, but few had been willing to meet so late at night. For now, though, he said the books would do. She unpacked them and set them on the sideboard next to many of his other requests, using a set of enameled metal bowls as bookends.

Sighing from the effort, she sat back and surveyed the room, which was starting to look like less like the hotel room of a financier and more like the lab of a 17th century alchemist. Vials of water, jars of sand, tree branches, feathers, all meticulously labelled. Her work kept her so busy she had stopped wondering about the bizarrely specific requirements of each–separate entries for desert sand versus ocean sand, for instance, and a long list of types of people tears could be collected from–focusing instead on simply getting things collected and checked off the list as quickly as possible.

She peered at her notebook again. Maybe next time Masterson came around she could make him cry and get those “Adulterer’s Tears” taken care of.

Another phone rang. Sighing, she got up and retrieved it. Once they finished with all the financial planning, perhaps Rabenholz would allow her to hire an IT guy, some sort of black-market hacker who could figure out some way to shadow-route their calls so they didn’t have to have so many drop phones all the time.

“Rhona Tyler,” she answered.

“Rhona!” a familiar voice gasped. It was Jackson, the young finance guy Rabenholz had hired right before her. Like her, he was rapidly finding himself at the top of an ever-expanding pyramid as Rabenholz’s investments grew, and by what she’d seen he was brilliant enough to deserve it, but the odd requests and long nights were clearly starting to drain on him. Rhona suspected he was actually a morning person.

“Ms. Tyler,” she corrected him.

“Oh, yes, I know, I’m sorry. I was just calling to see, is Rabenholz there?”

She closed her eyes. Perhaps not as brilliant as she thought. “His lordship is out, and isn’t scheduled to meet with you until tomorrow evening–”

“No I know, that’s good, actually! I wanted to talk with you!”

She sighed. “Mr. Jackson, my schedule is also severely impacted at the moment–”

“I know, I know, but look, I just finished meeting with the Clearholdings group, so I’m in the area, and wanted to know if I could stop by.”

“Why?” she snapped.

“I…I think I found something.”

“Something in the LLC paperwork?”

“No, that went fine, I mean…something else.”

She rolled her eyes, gaze settling on a box of mirrors and half-melted candles that she had yet to unpack. “Mr. Jackson, I have more than enough puzzles on my plate at the moment.”

“I know, that’s kinda what this is about. Look, it’ll just be a few minutes, and if Rab–if his lordship isn’t around this will be perfect.”

She checked the clock on the mantle. Nine pm. Rabenholz wasn’t due back from his meeting at Regus Property Group for an hour and a half, and her next interview was scheduled at ten. “Fine. I’ll tell the desk staff to let you up.”

Her stomach growled again, harder, as she hung up. Room service was now half-an-hour late. She suspected Masterson had a hand in that. She called down to the front desk to let them know about Jackson and ask about the meal. They apologized profusely, saying they’d look into it right away, though to Rhona’s ears they weren’t as deferential as they would have been to any other guest. Maybe it was because they knew her, but more likely they were jealous of her new job.

She took two more calls while puttering around the suite. With so many phones to switch among, a headset was just a waste of time, so she wedged the devices against her shoulder while organizing the items in the collection and watering the onions. She was debating digging up the shoots as a last, desperate snack, when another knock came at the door. “Finally,” she muttered, opening the door to accept her food.

Jackson barged in before it was half-open, his messenger bag precariously slung on one shoulder, creasing and wrinkling his new designer suit. “Is he here?” he asked, peering at the door connecting Rhona’s office suite with Rabenholz’s private suite next door.

She pursed her lips and closed the front door. “No.”

Jackson sighed. “Good.” He plopped his bag on the table next to hers, whipped out a laptop, and started booting it up.

Rhona strode in behind him. Her ancient ancestors had been warriors, she knew, but her mother had been a school teacher, far more fearsome than any lion-hunting tribesman. “Mr. Jackson,” she barked in her mother’s voice, “My time is almost as limited a his lordship’s–”

She stopped as he turned to look up at her. His face was just as tired and harried as her own, but there was something else in his eyes. Fear.

“Rhona,” he said, seriously, “So, I was doing some research into Rabenholz’s European holdings–”

“He said those were defunct, closed or taken over by his family members. That’s why he came here.”

“I know, I know, but he’s not a finance guy, so I thought, maybe there were some interesting assets I could find that even he didn’t know about, or maybe some old partners who would be willing to back his new ventures.”

She unfolded her arms, placing a hand on her hip. That actually was a pretty good idea. “So? Did you find something?”

He hesitated. “I’m not sure. I couldn’t find any information on his previous holdings, but I did stumble across this….” He pulled up a bookmark in a browser window and slid the laptop over so she could see.

It was a Wikipedia page, dense with names and dates, but the title at the top was clear: Pfalzgraf Augustus von Rabenholtz, Elector Palatine, Elector of Bavaria.

She bristled a moment. Why hadn’t she thought to look up his information like that? She chalked it up to her busy schedule and the stress. Outwardly, though, she shrugged. “So? There are street performers in this city with Wikipedia pages.”

“Yes, but, look.” He pointed to a couple paragraphs. All the dates were in the early 1600’s, and there was an entire section devoted to the Thirty Years War.

She shrugged again. “Old European families recycle names all the time. It’s probably some direct ancestor they wanted to have a…tie…to….”

She trailed off as he scrolled down the page. There, embedded in the section about the pfalzgraf’s rise to power, was a clear photo of an oil painting. A man in heavy robes, two lanky hunting hounds at his side and a silver-handled cane in his hands. The painting was worn with age, but the lines of the face, and the piercing glare over frost-grey beard, were exactly the same as when Rhona had last seen them, when Rabenholz left the suite an hour ago.

She sank down into a chair, shakily. “No…that’s…I mean, aristocratic families tend to look like themselves for generations–”

“Rhona,” Jackson glanced furtively around the room and leaned toward her. “He only ever has meetings at night. The earliest call I’ve ever received from him was still after the sun went down. We never see him eat. He pours wine liberally, but he never drinks it.”

She shook her head slowly, still staring at the screen, unable to look away from the painting’s gaze. She had suspected, had noticed the same little clues piling up, but pushed them aside, focusing on the work to be done. But now, with evidence literally staring her in the face, she could ignore it no longer.

“Rhona, things have been crazy lately. Things exploding all over town, people disappearing. This can’t be unrelated, somehow….” He watched her closely, hands clenched tightly in his lap. “…What do we do?” he whispered.

After a long moment, she turned to him. “Our jobs,” she said firmly.

“Jobs which should be keeping you much more occupied than this,” a deep voice said suddenly. Jackson stumbled to his feet, almost overturning his chair. Rhona rose slowly, carefully. Rabenholz was there, standing at the door between the suites. They had been so intent on the computer she hadn’t even heard it open.

The older man swept in slowly, tall form and dark clothes dominating the cluttered room. Jackson took a half step back, but Rabenholz stopped and met his eyes. “Mr. Jackson, relax. I am sure if you consider this further you will conclude it is nothing but odd coincidence,” he said in a smooth voice. “I realize there must be a lot of excitement regarding bringing our enterprise off the ground. Perhaps you should take the night off. You may go.”

Jackson nodded, expression blank, but the tension drained from his shoulders. Rabenholz gestured toward the front door. Wordlessly, Jackson gathered his bag and left, leaving the laptop behind.

Rhona remained motionless, head high, watching Rabenholz as he paced the room, pausing at the stack of new textbooks. He seemed normal, no waxiness to his skin or melodramatic Dracula stoop to his shoulders. But Jackson’s words rang in her head. Her fingers itched to feel her neck, wondering if she’d find paired scars there.

“How…did the Regus meeting go?” she ventured finally into the silence.

“Not well,” Rabenholz said, peering at the spines. “Those people are imbeciles. We shall have to look elsewhere for business accommodations.” He hesitated on one and drew it out, a quantum physics textbook. “You have excellent poise,” he muttered, flipping through it. “I’ve been meaning to comment on it.”

“Ballet,” she said crisply, rolling with the sudden change of subject. “Took classes till I was fifteen.”

His mouth twitched briefly under his beard and he put the textbook down. “I saw a few productions in my time, at the Académie Royale de Musique.”

Her breath caught. “…It’s just called the Paris Opera now, sir.”

“So it is.” He watched her a moment, face unreadable. “Why did you stop?”

She blinked. “…Sir?”

“Why did you stop dancing?”

She stared. Normally when people asked her, a black woman, why she gave up on formal training, it was with a look in their eyes saying they already suspected the answer. But his were open, interested, unbiased. A laugh escaped her lips. “Honestly, sir? I just decided I like other things more.”

“What sorts of things?”

“Pizza.” She smirked. “But also business. I decided to focus on my studies. Got into the Hotel School, at Cornell.”

He nodded as if those words meant something to him, pacing the room, examining his onions and other collected items. “Business and ballet are a lot alike. Both require dedication, discipline, focus.” His survey complete, he returned to the table, staring at the Wikipedia page still loaded on the laptop screen. “You also mustn’t focus on what’s behind you, if you’re to keep moving forward.”

Her gaze flicked briefly between the painting and the man before her. “…What were their names, sir?” she asked softly.

“Who?”

“The dogs.”

He reached forward, tracing the lines of the wolfhounds’ backs with one long finger. “This was Hypatia, she was killed in a boar hunt. Euclid, though, died of old age, in front of the fire.”

After a moment, he closed the screen with a soft click and turned to face her. A brief thrill of fear told her to look away, but she stood tall, chin high. He regarded her silently, imperially, waiting to see what she would do.

Sweat beaded in her clenched fists. Finally, she spoke, “Have you altered my mind like you’ve altered Jackson’s, and the others?”

He took a slow breath. She wondered if it was habit, or theatrics. “Some, yes. When I first arrived. To keep you from finding sources such as this,” he tapped the computer, “Before you were ready.”

Her heart raced, fast as her mind as it searched for the seams in her memory. There was no hint of missing time, though all she had to compare to was the time in college she got blackout drunk after her senior finals. That experience had shaken her so much she never had more than a single drink at a time ever again. “And you could erase all this,” she gestured a shaking hand to the room, to the piles of objects, “Days’ worth of memories, just as easily?”

“I could.” He watched her evenly. “But I prefer my associates keep their wits about them.”

She turned away then, arms around her, scanning the room. The front door loomed in her view, at the end of the hall. Somewhere beyond the polished wood was the normal bustle of the hotel, uncluttered by mystery, her place in it familiar and clear.  “All of these things,” she gestured at the books, the onions, the cellphones, “This is just the beginning of it, isn’t it?”
He nodded slowly. “I believe our arrangement was to complete any requests I desire, under any circumstances.”

“And if not, I could leave.” She glanced again at the door. “Though it’s hard to walk out on a quarter-million salary–”

“Flat,” he said suddenly. Her gaze snapped to him. “The entire fund will be transferred to your account tomorrow.”

Her mind reeled. “…But how can I trust someone who can alter my mind at will?” She suppressed a shudder.

If he was insulted by the question his face didn’t show it, but his voice deepened to a commanding edge. “How can you trust a business partner not to renege on an agreement? How can you trust a dance partner not to drop you at the top of a grande jeté?” She watched him a long moment, standing there like a facsimile of his portrait, though much more tense.

A phone rang. On the third ring, she took a breath, strode over, dug it from the bag, and answered. “Rhona Tyler. …Yes, Mr. Coppersmith, his lordship has returned and we are expecting you. I will meet you in the lobby when you arrive.” She hung up and turned to Rabenholz. “I’ll call up to the room to check that you’re ready when I’m about to bring him up, sir.” With that she strode toward the front door.

Rabenholz hesitated a fraction of an instant, watching her, then glanced at the clock. “I thought Mr. Coppersmith wasn’t scheduled to arrive for another forty-five minutes.”

“Oh, he’s not, but room service is almost an hour late, and I’m starving. I think I’m going to make Masterson buy me a pizza before I raise hell in the front lobby. He certainly doesn’t have to know that I can afford it.” She winked, grinning at Rabenholz’s bemused expression. “Until then, your lordship.” With a short bow, she closed the door.

END

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